Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Are We 'There' Yet? Acknowledging the Cost of Discipleship (Good Friday 3 April 2015)

RCL Good Friday
3 April 2015

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Are We ‘There’ Yet?

Chapter 2:  Acknowledging the Cost of Discipleship
         Within a year or two of arriving in Vancouver I was appointed by Archbishop Hambidge to a working group dedicated to the restoration of the diaconate as a full and equal order in the Diocese of New Westminster.  Since then I have been involved, in one way or another, with this project of restoration, renewal and revolution.  At Saint Faith’s we are fortunate to have Christine Wilson as our parish deacon and many of our friends from Saint Augustine’s will remember the ministry of Marie Brown who has since retired from active ministry.
         In recent years one of my tasks has been to travel around the Diocese and giving orientation sessions to parishes who have an applicant for the diaconate or who are considering asking the Bishop to license a current deacon to serve in their parish.  Often, when I give my presentation, one of the first questions is, ‘How long will this process take?’  On a few occasions, when the applicant has been in the process for some time, the question is the more familiar, ‘But aren’t we “there” yet?’
         It’s at this point that I drop a little ‘reality bomb’ on the congregation.  Most deacons in this Diocese are non-stipendiary, meaning that they have day-jobs that pay the bills.  To some congregations this is an attractive idea; an extra set of ordained hands without the cost of a part-time or full-time priest.  Many people aren’t interested in the fine distinctions between the ministry of a deacon and a priest, sometimes called a ‘presbyter’.  So a no-cost solution to the challenges of parish ministry seems like a very good idea.
         My ‘reality bomb’ actual comes in a couple of forms.  I point out that the Diocese requires the parish to pay $600 per year into a continuing education plan for the deacon.  This brings about the first intake of breath.  I add that, if the parish wants the deacon to undertake any ministry on behalf of the parish for which a presbyter would be reimbursed, the same rules apply to a deacon.  A second intake of breath, usually from the treasurer.  Then comes the most expensive part:  if there is a deacon in the parish, the way the parish goes about its ministry and engages the community around it will change.  At this point several people get really uncomfortable and I occasionally see a slight look of panic in the face of the Rector or Vicar of the parish.
         I tell you this story because Ignatius of Antioch, a second-century bishop of that city now located in war-torn Syria, once described the ministry of deacons as being identical to the ministry of Jesus Christ.  Our ordination service for a deacon describes this ministry as one that serves ‘all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely’. [1]  The life and teaching of a deacon are ‘to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself.’ [2]  Deacons may be the church’s agents in ministry, but they are agents who regularly co-opt and draft others into this work.  Bring a deacon into your parish and the next thing you know you’ll find yourself doing something you never thought you’d do.  That's the real cost.
         In Christ, our ‘diaconal’ Lord, God has come to serve all people, even those who do not consider themselves poor or weak or sick or lonely.  In Christ God has not offered us a sacrificial victim in whom the work of restoration, renewal and revolution are accomplished once and for all without any human participation in this work.  No, in Christ God offers us the pattern of what it means to be fully alive as a human being and invites us, with the help of the Holy Spirit and the community of faith, to grow into that pattern and to share that life, not just in some future, but in the here and now.
         When Jesus says, ‘It is finished’, I regret to tell you that it isn’t finished, if by ‘finished’, you mean ‘it’s all over but the shouting’.  What Jesus finishes on the cross is the dramatic beginning of a longer story, one that involves millions of women, men and children living in every century since the crucifixion and on every inhabited continent and island.  If God’s work of restoration, renewal and revolution were a three-act play, then Jesus’ words mark the end of Act II.  Act III has been going on for a very long time and it doesn’t look like the play is going to end soon.
         Following the way of the cross, the road of discipleship, is an offer God makes freely, but there is a cost to travelling this road.  The most expensive cost is the choice to look at the world through the eyes of God and to accept the ‘upside down, inside and out’ vision that God has for this planet and its creatures, human and non-human.  When we look at this world through God’s eyes, then we quickly become aware of the fact that we are not ‘there’ yet.  Self-interest still tries to over-power the common good; the power of the consumer economy still exerts its pull on even the best-intentioned of us.
         If any of us doubt the cost of discipleship, then one need only remember recent events.  In the troubled border region between Somalia and Kenya religious extremists have been targeting Christians for many months.  Christians have died and other Christians, many of whom are the professionals this impoverished region desperately need, have either fled or refused to go.  Our proclamation of God's vision of the 'peaceable kingdom' --- where the lamb lies down with the lion and the little child safely rests by the den of poisonous snakes --- is a threat to those with a far narrower vision.
         So I have good news and I have bad news.  The good news is that in Jesus of Nazareth, in his life, his ministry, his obedience to God’s call, we see what it means to be a human being fully alive.  We have a glimpse of the potential this world has and the beauty that it is in it for all its creatures.  God’s last word to us is hope not despair, life not death.
         The bad news is that the death of Jesus whose passion we have read and pondered today has not brought God’s miracle play to an end.  We’ve come to the end of Act II and God has recruited a new cast of players to continue the story:  you and I.  Are we ‘there’ yet?  No; there are still countless scenes to be played.  But the ending has begun to take shape.

[1] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 655.

[2] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 655.

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